Last week I wrote a post showing similarities between Undercover Boss and short-term mission trips. I want to follow that up with some comments about how we go about determining what people in other countries need.
When we see people in developing nations that lack so many things that we consider essential, we are moved to help. That compassion is a good thing, but it needs a bit of discernment along with it. Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert have done much work in this area; they have a website (and book) called When Helping Hurts. I won’t pretend to address this topic in the depth that they do, but I do want to share some personal observations.
First, a couple of examples that I’ve mentioned before. One I saw in the church in Córdoba, Argentina, where I used to live. The church has done an excellent job over the last few years of updating their worship space, creating a lovely setting for meeting together. The preacher is quite technologically adept and has begun using a projector on a regular basis. I went to visit and saw that they were projecting on a tiny screen, something like 3×4. This was puzzling to me, since the wall they were projecting toward was white and perfectly flat. It was a perfect space for projections. “Why are you using that screen instead of just projecting on the wall?,” I asked. The answer: “Some Americans gave us this screen, and we thought we should honor their gift by using it.”
The other story was one that was told me in Cuba a few years ago:
“We were quite happy, everyone providing their own cup for the Lord’s Supper. Then a brother from the States brought us communion trays, without asking. Now we have to find ways to get cups from the States.”
Sometimes, when we go to other countries, we create a need that they didn’t have before. I saw the newsletter of someone who had been to Cuba. He had a list of things “the Cubans are asking for.” It was a strange list, bearing little relation to what I’d heard from the mouths of Cubans. I asked the man, and he said, “I asked them if they wanted some baptismal garments. They said yes.” Same with sewing machines and little audio devices to listen to the Bible. That’s how he came up with his list of things “they were asking for.”
In a similar way, I was at a conference in Alabama where Ammiel Perez, preacher from Havana, was present. One brother showed him some solar-powered devices with teaching materials recorded on them. The devices cost $500 each. The man asked Ammiel if they would be useful in Cuba, and Ammiel said sure. Later I asked Ammiel, “If someone has $5000 to help the church in Cuba, do you want them buying 10 of those devices?” Ammiel said, “No way! We have much bigger needs.”
One principle that we need to keep in mind is the principle of relative deprivation. It’s the idea of wanting something because others have it. You don’t feel the need unless you see that others have something you don’t. My uncle talked about growing up poor. He said, “All we had to eat was beans and cornbread. But everyone around us was eating beans and cornbread, so we didn’t know we were poor.”
When we go to another country with our new smartphone and ask someone in that country if they’d like one, they’re probably going to say yes. Now they’re hoping to get a smartphone, where they might not have seen one before. (That may be a bad example. One friend in Cuba who is a tour guide told us about a condescending tourist who pulled an old cellphone out of her pocket and asked, “Do you even know what this is?” My friend’s colleague whipped out his smartphone and said, “Well THIS is a telephone… I’m not sure what that piece of junk is.”)
But if you ask someone, “Do you need one of these?”, they’re probably going to say yes, even if they don’t really need it. Just don’t go around saying, “Our brothers are asking for these.”
Years ago, the U.S. government established the Alliance for Progress to work with Latin America. In Spanish, that’s “La Alianza Para El Progreso.” It makes for a funny play on words, because “para” can also be a form of the verb to stop. That makes it “The Alliance Stops Progress.” Many Latin Americans felt that’s exactly what happened. While they were trying to keep children from dying from diarrhea, their hospitals received advanced cancer treatment machines costing tens of thousands of dollars. Millions of dollars of aid came in, but little was in the form that was really needed.
Have a heart to help. But have ears to listen and eyes to see. Go and be a learner. See what they’re real needs are before making your shopping list and writing your appeal letters. You might be surprised.
One closing thought. Tony Fernández in Cuba often repeats something he told me the first time I went: “What we really need in Cuba isn’t money. Our greatest need is understanding.”
Image courtesy of MorgueFile.com